We sat alone, not a soul for miles. From a ridge in the cliff, we overlooked Lake Superior as waves beat against rock. We breathed the fresh air of solitude. I remember going back and forth with friends, Should I record it? What if she wanted to watch it later? What if she wanted to show others?
Only I, my wife, and the Lord know what was said that day. The smiles, the laughter — the chipmunk — the crying. As she finally said yes, only God’s smile and mine met hers. One of the most precious events of our lives went unrecorded. The beautiful moment, fully enjoyed, slipped through our fingers.
When Beautiful Moments Slip Away
With the touch of a button, we can memorialize our kids on their first day of school. We can record her laughter from the Ferris wheel on our first date. We can hear his corny joke over and over, seeing that weathered face one last time with every push of play. Life is a vapor, and God has gifted this generation with the ability to seize our little mist like never before.
But with all good gifts handled by fallen man, it can become misused. The photo can become prized above the moment it captures. Who doesn’t feel pressure to keep the phone within reach to catch special moments as they come? Mankind has traded God for images resembling mortal man (Romans 1:23); have we further traded away the priceless moments he gives us for images resembling them? Each of us is tempted, like none who came before us, to live-stream our life but forget to live.
By all means, enjoy taking souvenirs from the past. But when stockpiling and photo-taking becomes compulsive, when we start living for the next uploadable Instagram, when we can no longer enjoy unrecorded beauty, when we become amateur photographers with no vacations days or holidays, when we carry a selfie-stick like it’s a driver’s license, then, we have become memory hoarders.
We miss precious moments not because we didn’t have our phones, but because we did. Like kids texting at the dinner table, we forgot to look special moments in the eye. We pass on the first take of life in favor of a later viewing, trading the real for the replica, and in so doing, counterfeiting our joy.
And our camera-usage professes much. I believe it reveals three crucial truths about us.
1. We Fear Death
Memory hoarding reveals what we all already know but rarely consider: life is fleeting. “Here today, gone tomorrow” terrifies us. It was just yesterday we attended sleepovers and played outside at recess.
We dread death, and this fear subjects us to “lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15). The grave beckons, the walls close in, fear besets us as we await the grim reaper. And as the shadow prowls in the dark, we attempt to squeeze as much life from the peel as we can, while we can.
One way memory-hoarding attempts this is by documenting every passing moment worth remembering. We try to keep the portal open to the past so that we might travel back and forth, eating the best of both seasons’ harvest. The brevity of life makes it too small a thing to enjoy moments only once.
But our panic often backfires. Our incessant filming often disrupts the very moments we attempt to capture. To record our children playing, we stop playing with our children.
To stop. Grab the phone. And proceed. Is often to introduce periods into life, mid-sentence.
2. We Seek Immortality
I talked to a dead man recently. He had not updated his profile in some time. I found out a week ago he has been dead for as long. The incident struck me as bizarre. Funny quips hung on his wall. He smiled in his profile pic. His personality and image were in pristine condition. His life’s work stood a click away. He, as many of us hope to be, was embalmed on the Internet. Though he died, he lives.
Collecting memories, at its most relaxed, is an attempt to savor the best wine life offers. At its most frantic, a shot at immortality. If science has not cured death, at least technology can prolong our image, our thoughts, our names on the World Wide Web. Some of us use our phones, not so much as a portal to the past, but as a portal to a limitless audience. And like an actor with a part too small for his liking, we spend a lifetime sashaying across social media, drawing as much attention as possible, before being forced to exit stage right.
We long to be remembered. We are not beasts, content to live and die in the field nameless. We are made to live forever; God has placed eternity into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We pine for the place where remarkable moments cannot be stolen. But instead of trusting the one who destroyed the power of death to deliver us from fear (Hebrews 2:15), we use God’s gift of technology to seek what it has never truly offered: eternal life. We frantically write our names on the walls of the Titanic.
3. We Have Forgotten Our Hope
Our piles of photographs suggest that even we Christians hold to this life with strained knuckles. We embrace the lovely as though we don’t expect to see it again.
Although we might not articulate it, we may feel apprehensive about being reminded that this world is not our home. We read the truth, “The world is passing away” (1 John 2:17), secretly saddened. This is understandable. This world is the only one we’ve known. All our joys have been here. Our loves have been here. But faith reverses the priority. “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
As the world’s final page is turning, “whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). The best, for us, is yet to come. We need not doubt nor fear our immortality. The grandest moments here — the ones which compel us to grab our phones to smuggle what we can for a keepsake — are, at their most precious, rumors of what is to come.
Eternity’s Epic Tale
There exists a glory for the Christian in letting precious moments, after being fully tasted and delighted in, pass without regret. He alone need not obsessively stuff memories and prop them up on display like some do wild animals. This is not the closest we will get to heaven.
For the child of God, all precious moments worth recounting here will be given us in the next life. Earth’s history will be the epic of heaven. The best moments in this age will taste even better in the new world. “In eternity,” writes Marilynne Robinson, “all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” Even now, myriads of glorious heavenly creatures listen with astonishment (1 Peter 1:12).
In eternity, God himself will tell it. He will take ages upon ages to page through earth’s chapters containing the immeasurable riches of his kindness and mercy towards his people. And we each will have our part to tell. The golden thread of his steadfast love will be traced throughout all our pasts. Calvary will be our refrain. We will laugh over his mercy, cry over his compassion, cheer over his triumph, smile over beautiful moments, and glory in the fullness to which they all pointed. There, the essence of all that pleased us here and now will return to us in full when we see him face-to-face.